The man set his keys down on the coffee table and set about tidying the room.
It was a small room on the third floor of Manresa Castle, a hotel in the Victorian seaport of Port Townsend, and the man — in his late 20s — was a housekeeper there just wrapping up his day.
He finished up his work and turned back to retrieve the large key ring.
It wasn’t there, at least not on the table. Instead, it was floating in mid-air about 18 inches off the wood top. As he stared at it, the ring crashed down on the table with a clatter.
The man snatched up the keys and bolted out of room 306, terrified by the experience.
That’s the story, anyway, that I was told as a kid. The man was my dad, working there sometime in the late 1970s. The room is now famous among the ghost-hunting circuit as the room where a young woman, depressed after her lover never returned from the sea, decided to leap out the window to her death.
She’s one of two ghosts said to haunt the hotel, the other being a Jesuit monk who hung himself in the attic above room 302. Some count the hotel among the most haunted places in Washington state.
I grew up in and around Port Townsend, and heard all the stories — some with grains of truth and some with none at all.
But it’s no surprise the city has drawn such terrific tales of horror; as many such places were in the late 19th century, the city started on tenuous terms and, in its heyday, drew no shortage of tough characters.
The city’s first white settlers built a cabin near the beach in 1851, smack in the middle of what was then a prominent S’Klallam Indian trading village. And it wasn’t long before a city and a bustling seaport solidified the white settlers’ position in the area (a questionable treaty gave the government the land in exchange for the natives’ right to keep fishing and hunting on it).
With a good harbor, the city was able to secure status as the port of entry for Puget Sound and its waterfront became the domain of all things working-class: Mercantiles, brothels, saloons and bad behavior.
While the upper classes lived in relative peace and luxury uptown — not far but literally above the downtown — the downtown became a place not to be caught unawares at night.
Aside from the more reasonable threats of robbery and fights that could turn murderous, Port Townsend became known as a place where men regularly got “shanghaied.” In short, a man out on the town might be drugged or knocked over the head after a night of drinking and find himself aboard a ship in the morning, forced into service by a master short of crew.
City leaders, banking that the railroad would terminate at the seaport, spurred a development boom that raised most of the buildings that today make up the downtown and uptown cores, as well as many of the homes.
Unfortunately for them, the railroad didn’t make it (rail lines ended on the east side of Puget Sound) and then a nationwide depression hit in 1893, triggering significant fallout in the region. As the city’s glory waned, things got tough for some.
Charles Eisenbeis Jr., son of the city’s first mayor (Eisenbeis Sr. was a prominent businessman who had Manresa Castle built as a private home for him and his wife in 1892), shot himself in the head in 1897. He was, as the article in The Morning Leader described it at the time, “despondent.”
The incident at Manresa Castle was not the only tale of haunting I heard as a child.
After the turn of the century, Port Townsend regained some momentum with the opening of Fort Worden as a military outpost.
It opened in 1902 and was active until 1953. In 1957 it became a juvenile detention center (reform school was the way I heard it growing up) and then became a state park in 1973.
But as a teenager, I heard dark tales of the undead roaming the underground walkways of the fort, usually from other teenagers when we were about to walk into those underground halls.
It was rumored that a Satan-worshiping group practiced rituals in some of the darkest reaches of the mostly underground buildings of the outpost, sometimes releasing demons into the area that would prey on anyone who passed near.
There is a military cemetery on the grounds, but as far as I know, all who rest there died of mundane natural causes.
For many years now, the city has largely kept itself alive on the backs of tourists and a paper mill. No doubt, a healthy volume of ghost stories boosts some of the tourist trade.
James Barnett, writing for the Port Townsend Leader in 2004, put the tale of the Manresa castle haunting at less than 10 years old (for the record, I heard tales of it before 1994) and cast it as only a method to boost low booking numbers.
Supposedly, the stories were invented by a bartender who even made up the ghosts’ backstories, according to Barnett.
The Palace Hotel downtown is another site of supernatural visitations, or so it is said to be.
The hotel was at one time a brothel, run by a Madame Claire. Her corner room, No. 4, is often reported by guests as the site of moving objects, shifting shadows and unexplained sounds, Barnett noted in his 2004 piece.
I’ve stayed in the Palace in recent years and didn’t run across any ghostly madams roaming the halls but, then again, it is a spooky place.
For me, the stories are a fun way to connect with the city’s decadent past. Maybe the places really are haunted by tricky or evil spirits.
Or maybe those spirits are just the creation of smart-minded entrepreneurs trying to make a buck.